In a stormy session of the High Court of Justice on Sunday, judges leveled harsh criticism at the government’s request to delay and perhaps reconsider an earlier commitment: to demolish five buildings in the northeast part of the settlement of Beit El.
The State Attorney’s Office, representing the defense minister and the government, had committed to tear down and evacuate the buildings in question by May 1.
The five buildings are part of a 14-building development project known as the Ulpana neighborhood. The land in question was purchased from a man who, the state concedes, was never the actual owner. The residents, some of whom bought their apartments 12 years ago, contend that the purchase was made in good faith and the matter is under investigation in a Jerusalem district court. The Palestinian appellants, residents of the nearby village of Dura a-Kara, argued that the motion in district court is merely a means of buying time.
The High Court of Justice is expected to rule in the coming days.
If the judges’ attitude in the hearing was any indication, the court will likely turn down the state’s request. Justice Uzi Fogelman said granting the extension would set a dangerous precedent.
“There is [already] a judgment…. This means that in each ruling the state could come and request to reopen it,” he said.
The court’s ruling on this matter will likely act as precedent for future lawsuits regarding similar controversies.
Attorney Osnat Mandel of the State Prosecutors’ Office said the state had requested the two-month extension in order to clarify issues regarding the sale of the land that remained “shrouded in fog,” since any ruling would have far-reaching implications.
Michael Sfard, an attorney with the civil rights group Yesh Din, which is representing the Palestinian landowners, slammed the settlers’ claim to ownership, calling it “an empty contention.” He noted that the purported seller was seven years old at the time that the land was registered and that the settlers’ claim was rejected outright by the Land Registry.
Harel Cohen, a resident of the Ulpana neighborhood who is acting as its spokesperson, said that when he moved into Givat Ulpana in 2000, he was paid a NIS 90,000 grant from the Barak-led government, meaning that not only was the move known, it was state-sanctioned.
Further, he pointed out that this case is not only about the five buildings in the Ulpana neighborhood, but 9,000 buildings throughout the West Bank that share the same uncertain status.
Rather than focusing on the merits of the demolition of the 30 apartments in the Ulpana neighborhood, the discussion Sunday was largely concerned with the shaky legal basis for the court even hearing the government’s petition in the first place.
Attorney Mandel, the head of the High Court of Justice Department at the State Attorney’s Office, said the request was “very, very exceptional,” but Justice Salim Joubran expressed concern that “the exceptions” –increasingly more frequent — “are becoming the rule.”
Fogelman said the state should stick to its commitments.
“When the state say it intends to do something and the prime minister commits to it, we don’t consider a scenario in which it doesn’t get done,” he said. “There is mutual respect between the authorities.”
Attorney Sfard also offered a harsh critique of the state’s petition, alleging that “the government is trying to buy time, behaving like an addicted gambler.”
High Court president Asher Grunis ruled in favor of hearing the government’s motion, despite a letter published last week by several prominent jurists criticizing the government’s request for an extension on the High Court order.
According to the letter, the fact that the High Court is being asked to reopen a closed case and delay the demolition is tantamount to “destruction of the rule of law.”
The petition was signed by several prominent jurists, who offered harsh criticism of the court and the government, stating that the decision to stay the demolition was dangerous and unprecedented and would erode the court’s standing.
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